Making Faces: What Sort of Face Should a Robot Have?

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Home / Making Faces: What Sort of Face Should a Robot Have?
Would a faceless robot make you nervous? Image by dantada

Would a faceless robot make you nervous? Image by dantada

Many of us grew up with George Jetson’s robot maid, Rosie, on our television screen.  Her face resembled a tin drum on its side.  Her eyes glowed  red.  Her mouth was rectangular.  Two antennae sprung from either side of her head, which was topped with a ruffled maid’s cap.  Rosie’s face was somewhat human, but clearly mechanical.

Today, engineers are creating robots to perform a variety of tasks – but what should robots look like?  Research by Akanksha Prakash and Dr. Wendy A. Rogers from the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta found the answer was not simple. 

Robot Face Preference

Presented with robots with either “robotic appearance, human-robot mixed appearance, and human appearance” research participants varied in their preferences depending upon their age and the task the robot was to perform.  Using these classifications, despite the ruffle on her head, Rosie would fall in the robotic appearance group. 

Prakash and Rogers found that older adults in their small pilot study preferred robots with human features, while younger adults preferred robots with mixed appearances.  But the task the robot was to perform mattered.

If the researchers presented the robot as though designed for personal care, such as bathing the elderly, responses were split, with some preferring the more “nurse-like” human appearance, and others responding that a human appearance made then feel as though the robot were invading privacy.  Other tasks, such as playing games also favored the human-like robots.  However, if the researchers said that the robot was designed for decision-making, the subjects preferred the mixed robot; perhaps because the mechanical appearance made it seem more intelligent.

In an exclusive interview with Decoded Science, Prakash explained the preferences this way, “We found that older adults who focus on the “care” or sensitive aspect of the personal care task, would feel more comfortable with a human-looking robot to assist with this task. This is because they easily attribute human-like care and capability to such a robot which are important components of personal care.” She continued by quoting a respondent, ” “…It looks like a humanoid that you could trust and I’m giving them the benefit of knowing how to aid and hold you as immerse into the water bathing or that sort of stuff. And uh she seems strong enough to be able to hold a sizable human being, this one might look kind of fragile.”

On the other hand, she notes, “… another group of people (including older adults) who are more concerned about the “personal” aspect (or private nature) of the personal care task. These people would feel more comfortable being assisted by a robot that does not mimic human appearance.”   She provided this example this concern, “sometimes personal care can get pretty involved, and I’d much rather have an impersonal-looking creature caring for my personal needs.”  

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